Monday, 1 August 2011

And in the end...

‘Creativity is great, but plagiarism is faster’ -anon

The scene is always the same; the topic is always different but no matter what the programme is discussing or reviewing if the time line happens to pass the date of 07/02/64 one event is ALWAYS mentioned. This is the date The Beatles touched down in America. You think I’m exaggerating? Have a look for yourself, whether the programme is talking about music as a whole, Motown and Soul, POP, Classical, Country, Jazz, Folk and everything in between… if this date is passed over, the same piece of film of the Boeing 707 Pan Am jet taxiing into JFK airport on the 7th February 1964 is shown. There have been many books, films, documentaries, interviews and even cartoons about The Beatles that have pretty much sewn up the topic for fans and casual appreciators alike but one thing that seems to get lost is the influence behind the songs. I’m sure if you googled ‘Beatles influences’ the result would be a list of the usual suspects, ranging from Elvis Presley to Chuck Berry and Little Richard with some Carl Perkins references along the way. This is all well and good and I’m not disputing this at any level as these are the main meat and potatoe influences of each member of the group and are still the ones they probably think of when this question is put to them for the 1000th time in interviews.

The point of this exercise is to put a viewpoint out there that there were a few more influences about that were a little closer to home and that apart from being the greatest group that have ever existed in the history of popular music, they were also great music fans and had their own individual tastes in music in relation to contemporary acts and bands throughout the 1960s that influenced their playing and writing outside of their Buddy Holly 45’s from their youth.

Sometimes the influences are slight and you have to really squint to see the join and it may just be a song that was made in the same vein as the influence whereas others are just so close to the original that you almost feel proud at the cheek of them to release their own finished version and release as a single.

Here are a few:

'I Feel Fine' - A great track from November 1964 that features at it’s opening the ‘first use of feedback’ according to John Lennon although this has been argued and debated until the wee small hours with names like Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Dave Davies, Ritchie Blackmore and Pete Townsend all throwing their 1st place medals into the ring for consideration. The song itself features a very distinctive guitar riff that John Lennon was apparently ‘busking throughout the sessions and trying to fit into every new song he wrote without success’ this riff finally appears here on this song but after a simple scanning through the 45’s on the recently found John Lennon’s jukebox you will see the song ‘Watch Your Step’ by Bobby Parker (a R&B track from 1961). I’ll leave you to make your own minds up there. But if you are too lazy I’ll just blurt it out “They are the same!”…It wasn’t all John adding some licks from other songs here. The drumming is straight from 'What I Say' by Ray Charles. If you’re going to steal, steal from the best.

‘Talent borrows, genius steals’Oscar Wilde

‘I’m Down’ – This is a pretty easy one as in the world of rock and roll there is only so many templates and Little Richard and Chuck Berry have used them all up and have done it better. This is a track that is very, very similar to ‘Long Tall Sally’ by Little Richard even down to the opening vocal lead in to the scream before the solo. Although it is a song that was a live favourite (see Shea Stadium shows) and a B-side from the get go so they weren’t claiming to re-invent the wheel but simply have a loud rocker to get the crowds going and cut loose as a band.

‘I Saw Here Standing There’ – The opening gambit from their debut album ‘Please Please Me’ from 1963 has more than a passing resemblance to a late and little played Chuck Berry song from 1961 named ‘I’m Talking About You’ (this is what youtube is for people).

‘Composers shouldn’t think too much…it interferes with their plagiarism’Howard Dietz

‘Lady Madonna’ (1968) – The ‘back to basics’ track that McCartney wrote as a kind of “getting back to their roots” Fats Domino New Orleans to help the band come out of the summer of love psychedelic brouhaha and centre them once again away from the sitars and meditations, a great song, it’s a shame that Humphrey Lyttleton had already written and recorded ‘Bad Penny Blues’ in 1956.

‘Come Together’ (1969) – This may be a moot point due to the fact that it has already been decided upon and settled out of court that this song includes some lyrics from the 1956 Chuck Berry (yes him again!) song ‘You Can’t Catch Me’. With the line ‘Here come a flat-top, he was movin’ up with me’ being a bit too close to The Beatles and Lennon singing ‘Here come old flat-top he come grooving up slowly’ which is fair enough. The matter was later settled by Lennon after he covered a few other songs that the prosecuting publisher also owned (resulting in his solo 50s inspired covers album ‘Rock And Roll’.

I’m sure the whole episode shocked John Lennon and the group as a whole as when he did the same trick on ‘Run for Your Life’ in 1965 on the ‘Rubber Soul’ album nobody from Elvis Presley’s office called and said “oi Lennon, why have you taken the whole line from ‘Baby Let’s Play House’ and added it to your own song?” The line ‘I’d rather see you dead little girl than to be with another man’ is used as the opening for The Beatles track and the turnaround line in verse 4 for Elvis, word for word.

Coincidentally in an interview John Lennon stated that ‘Run for Your Life’ was one of George Harrison’s favourite Beatle songs, and being both one of the four involved and a big Elvis fan, he would have immediately seen the link. George himself was no stranger to the crib sheet especially when faced with the blank page and writing duties. His famous court case and prolonged copyright infringement suit in relation to ‘My Sweet Lord’ (1970) that lasted over 10 years due to the similarity to the girl group classic song ‘He’s So Fine’ by The Chiffons (the group themselves actually recorded their own version of the Harrison track in the wake of publicity they were getting in the press). John Lennon didn’t buy the ‘subconscious plagiarism’ plea either in 1980 during an interview with Playboy magazine “He must have known, you know. He's smarter than that. It's irrelevant, actually—only on a monetary level does it matter. He could have changed a couple of bars in that song and nobody could ever have touched him, but he just let it go and paid the price. Maybe he thought God would just sort of let him off.”

Although to prove that sometimes the pendulum swings the other way too. When George Harrison nicked the line/hook “Something in the way she moves” for his smash (and the groups in fact) track 'Something' he was in fact taking a line from APPLE’s (The Beatles own record label) newest signing, future acoustic rock troubadour James Taylor who had a song out titled 'Something In The Way She Moves'…he couldn’t really play down the connection if this had gone any further as both McCartney and Harrison himself guested (un-credited) on another of Taylors songs ‘Carolina in My Mind’ from the same time frame. George Harrison later commented that when writing ‘Something’ he pictured Ray Charles singing it rather than any other closer to home influences. I’m sure a few eye brows were raised when this was printed while they sat in an office full of un-sold James Taylor records.

Some will argue that plagiarism is only accounted for when the perpetrator takes one man’s work and makes it worse, others will say that all originality is simply undetected plagiarism when you pull back the sheets, I think everyone is influenced constantly by everything around them and why should rock and roll be any different? A musical nod that shows appreciation to another artist only validates that what they wrote originally, is good enough and appreciated enough to be remembered.

There are some cases where lyrics have been swiped, although just little enough to protect themselves from the judges gavel, or in some cases enough amendments made to either a singular word or a whole line to keep the lawyers at bay. In the McCartney song ‘Golden Slumbers’ on the groups Abbey Road album the lyrics involved include the lines: “Golden slumbers fill your eyes, smiles awake you when you rise, sleep pretty darling do not cry, and I will sing a lullabye”…beautiful. If you now take a look at the following poem by Thomas Dekker from the play ‘Patient Grissel’ you will see a few similarities. ‘Golden slumbers kiss your eyes, smiles awake you when you rise sleep pretty wantons, do not cry. And I will sing a lullaby’. It seems that it’s not all champagne and skittles in the Macca household but a little bit of lyrical petty pilfering going on.

The Beatles are far and away both my favourite group and the best pop group, cultural phenomenon to hit western culture in the 20th century and I hope I haven’t given the impression that they were ‘a bunch of cheeky tea-leafs’ but they just assimilated themselves with the music and influence around them at the time. They were aware of their surroundings at all times and projected it back again like a cultural stereophonic mirror. The best artists represent the people and the world around them so it seems only necessary that Lennon/McCartney/Harrison/Starr would hear a song on the radio and immediately want to compete with it, everything you hear influences you whether you like it or not. If you like it then you’ll subconsciously try and imitate it, if you don’t like it then you’ll subconsciously steer clear of the same choice of notes/chords and go a different direction musically.

‘To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism, to steal ideas from many is research'Wilson Mizner

‘There’s a lot of random in our songs…writing, thinking, letting others think of bits-then bam! You’ve got the jigsaw puzzle'Paul McCartney

'And in the end
The love you take
Is equal to the love you make'

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